Last night I went to see David Foster Wallace read and was really excited to do so. The San Francisco literary scene can become incredibly stagnant, with the same four people reading every weekend with their friends–which is good for them, but not so great for the audience. Booksmith in upper Haight has some really wonderful authors forthcoming, bucking the trend.
David Foster Wallace is built like a lumberjack. He even dresses sort of like a lumberjack. Black workboots, denim pants, short sleeve button down with a hint of undershirt peeking through. Like a lot of large men, reminiscent of the gentle giant tropes, he is powerful yet awkward–a bait and switch of sharp wit and soft emotion who appears painfully self-aware. Yet he is in turns honest, soulful and full of pathos– then, mock-horrified by own statements. He speaks and then listens to himself in stereo–an endless feedback loop.
The “subvocal” voice in DFW’s head must be a hard task master. On stage one sees him stop. start. edit. embelllish. pare down. I would posit, after hearing Foster Wallace speak about media culture that there are three “voices” for modern humans: speaking voice, subvocal voice (the fancy term for that voice in your head), and reflexive voice or “self-referential” which is that creepy, judging ego filled voice that is constantly trying to put a stake in the sand that “this is who I am.” Riffing off of what DFW mentioned, I think that third voice is always trying to place ourselves in our thoughts, and in this world, since so much is disembodied…our heads here, our minds in Zimbabwe…or watching the Twin Towers fall on September 11, 2001.
Foster Wallace spoke quite a bit, in his essay “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” from his book “Consider the Lobster,” about media mediation in American culture. I have come to think that much of the apparent nervousness that Foster Wallace exhibits reading has much to do with his own place in the pantheon of media. I would guess he is hyper aware that he is part of that eerie, disconnected second hand opinion doctored with slick words. The question would be, is David Foster Wallace the writer’s Dan Rather with slightly mussed hair and in shirtsleeves?
Probably. Yes. No. I believe that it is easier to see into a writer’s soul than that of a corporate mouthpiece, such as a newscaster reading off of a teleprompter. DFW writes his own speeches, and luckily, does not have to be concerned with some sort of epic, unattainable objective “truth.” WIth the unmasking of JT Leroy and the allegations of falsification on the part of writer James Frey, isn’t it about time that we all had a Roshomon-esque moment and realized that there is no objective truth? What there is, is values. There are good people and bad people. There are judgements to be made, there are reasons behind why we act the way that we do. JT Leroy is a media hoax of Warholian proportions. James Frey being marketed as a self-help guru who helps people make it through addiction is false, the man’s an entertainer, pure and simple.
David Foster Wallace is an exceptionally talented writer and thinker. He is surrounded by an ether of self-conscious awareness in everything he does, a sort of fog of self-referentiality. His pieces try to patch together all of the extant information he has (which is where I think the footnotes come from) and deal with the multiple viewpoints that together, somehow, make up a representation of the truth. It is the mark of a great mind to be able to hold multiple viewpoints at once, but also a mark of the modern mind. It reminds me of psych 101 and the theory of cognitive dissonance. The theory is that human beings hate being in a state of cognitive dissonance and will do whatever it takes to have their minds be clear with one idea or viewpoint that is not in conflict with any other belief they hold. But cognitive dissonance is the constant state of the modern mind. It’s a rock and hard place, as far as I can tell, and David Foster Wallace seems to embody this idea for me.